A Redefined Purpose

A Redefined Purpose


Collaborations and demonstrations, such as this one at 2010's International Turning Exchange, are integral to the center's work. Photo: Karl Seifert

The Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia is no more. But that's no cause for alarm, says executive director Albert LeCoff. As his organization rounds the corner on 25 years, it's been rechristened the Center for Art in Wood, a name change designed to keep up with the evolution of wood art. "We've always encouraged artists to use whatever processes or materials they needed to express themselves," LeCoff says. "The field has grown well beyond just woodturning."

The center is growing with it. The fresh name is a reflection of its new, business-savvy strategic plan, which has already put the nonprofit in the black and in a better position to reach out to a larger, wood-loving audience. And along with its new name and redefined objective, the organization is moving this fall into an inspiring new location in the heart of Philadelphia's Old City arts district.

The center's soon-to-be home is a one-time Philly gym, which in its pre-renovation state conjured images of Rocky Balboa training to fight Apollo Creed. It's about twice as big as the old space. The main gallery will stretch over 3,100 square feet, with 20-foot ceilings, enabling the center to show a grander scale of work. The center's library also will have more room; its collection of almost 26,000 documents, images, and books will share one of two mezzanines. The other mezzanine will house the library's collection of more than 1,000 study objects (when they aren't traveling or on loan). To match the dazzling new physical space, a redesigned website is slated to go live in October, with the center's historical documents, book catalog, and images and descriptions of its permanent collection in a database.

But perhaps the biggest change will be a function of location. The center is moving only seven blocks - but its new building at 141 N. Third St. is between Snyderman-Works Gallery and Wexler Gallery, two popular craft destinations. Currently, the center gets 3,000 visitors a year, mostly people who search it out. The nonprofit expects that number to increase tenfold, based on increased foot traffic and visitor information that area organizations have shared. "Anybody who is walking back and forth to those galleries will have to go by us," LeCoff says.

In a stroke of serendipity, the building is also down the block from the John Grass Wood Turning Company building, the home of a production woodturning shop founded in 1863. The company worked with traditional methods and tools, repairing and creating parts for Philadelphia's historic buildings, until it closed in 2003. The Center for Art in Wood had been raising money to incorporate the building and machinery into their organization, but the recession and the loss of promised state funding halted their efforts.

In 2010, the Philadelphia council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America came to the rescue, purchasing the building and its historic equipment. Now, with the Center for Art in Wood in the neighborhood, the stars have aligned, and the center is looking forward to partnering with the union on historical and educational projects. In fact, the union is doing the remodel and buildout for the new space.

"The center's always been into the history, not just the continued evolution of the field," LeCoff says. "We have to learn from our past if we're ever going to do anything new in the future."

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft's assistant editor.